By Michael Aaron Gallagher of StayFamous.Net
Nearly eight years ago, I interviewed a legendary Hollywood actor. Due to technical difficulties, that interview would remain lost and unpublished… until now.
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
I was in the front seat of the car, sitting in a parking lot with a Samsung flip phone in one hand and an RCA digital recorder in the other. On the pages of a small company notepad were a handwritten list of questions for what would become one of the most meaningful celebrity interviews of my career.
After reading the Los Angeles Times Best-Selling book entitled, Just Call Me Mike: A Journey to Actor and Activist, I reached out to Mike Farrell to ask him if he would be willing to talk to me about his work. During our conversation, Mike shared his views on everything from fame in Hollywood to his advice for young people. Our telephone conversation was unfortunately cut short because of a mechanical issue, and he answered my remaining questions over email at a later time.
When the interview was done, I spent weeks agonizing over how to get the story just right. The more I tried to find a balance between his work as an actor and an activist, the more I realized how monumentally different those two worlds could be. How could I write about fame and make-believe in Hollywood in the same article that I discussed the harsh realities of a world with poverty, starvation and injustice?
I would eventually leave my job as an assistant editor and move on to a new career and into a new apartment. Somewhere along the way, the notes, emails and interview recording were lost and the story went untold. But the unpublished interview with Mike Farrell was still out there, waiting to be found.
Monday, October 29, 2018
I opened an untitled audio file from one of my digital recorders, which had been tucked away in storage. For the first time in more than seven years, I listened to the conversation with Mike Farrell and slowly began putting the pieces back together. I went over to my bookshelf and took down his book, discovering pages of notes that were still inside. I re-read the old messages I had saved in a folder of celebrity emails. And I re-read his book.
I realized how remarkable it was that nearly a decade after it took place, our interview was just as relevant now as it was back then. At the time I began the article, I was so afraid to get the story right that I didn’t tell it at all. Perfect or not, it was a story that mattered, and it deserved to be written.
A Champion of Social Progress
Born in St. Paul, Minnesota on February 6, 1939, Mike Farrell moved with his family to southern California, where his father worked as a movie studio carpenter. While growing up in West Hollywood, he attended grammar school with actress Natalie Wood, who he talks about having a crush on in his book. His own career in the entertainment business began with guest-starring roles in classic television shows like Lassie, Bonanza, I Dream of Jeanie, The Monkees, and a longer run on the daytime soap opera Days of Our Lives.
But it was his iconic role as Captain B.J. Hunnicutt on the beloved classic television series M*A*S*H that would make him a household name. His appearance in 179 episodes of the series would not only open doors for him to appear on the cover of TV Guide and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, but more importantly it would provide him with a global platform to speak out on social issues affecting people around the world.
When M*A*S*H ended in 1983, Mike’s journey as an actor was still far from over. Following the success of the iconic series, he would limit his television roles, later guest starring on Desperate Housewives (2007-2008), Without a Trace, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Supernatural. Of all his television appearances though, I knew him best for his starring role as veterinarian James Hansen, father of Dr. Sydney Hansen (who was played by actress Melina Kanakaredes) on the NBC drama Providence (1999-2002).
In 2018, he returned to the small screen once again, playing American business tycoon Lee Miglin in the second installment of the anthology series American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace on the FX Network. His gripping performance as Miglin and dramatic on-screen murder at the hands of spree killer Andrew Cunanan (played by Darren Criss), showed that true talent is timeless. Farrell’s impressive longevity in Hollywood has stemmed, in part, from his ability to continually reinvent himself on screen, as he embodied a variety of characters in both comedic and dramatic roles.
Behind the scenes in Hollywood, Farrell was also an influential producer. In the late 1980s, he co-founded Farrell/Minoff Productions along with Marvin Minoff, which produced numerous television projects, as well as the feature films Dominick and Eugene (1988), starring Ray Liotta and Patch Adams (1998), starring Robin Williams.
Although he has had a powerful influence as an actor and producer, Mike Farrell has had a far more profound impact in his work off screen. As an outspoken political and social activist he has championed many causes, raising awareness for human rights issues, animal rights, environmental issues and working with organizations like Human Rights Watch, Death Penalty Focus, PETA and many others, throughout his career.
In the land of showbusiness, it is often hard to determine what is real from what is not. But for some stars, there is more to Hollywood than simply entertainment. Of all the celebrities I have interviewed in my career, none have made activism and charity work a greater part of their life and legacy than Mike Farrell, who will turn 80 years old this February. Nearly eight years ago, I began writing a story about a man who was fighting to change the world and make it a better place. Instead of trying to tell the story, this time I will let the rest of the story tell itself.
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Michael Aaron Gallagher: “Throughout your acting career, did you have a plan for how you were going to be successful or is it the nature of the business to take on one project at a time?”
Mike Farrell: “I’ve heard of people having a plan. Sounds crazy to me unless being well-schooled and prepared qualifies as a plan. In my experience you prepare as well as you can and do the best job you can when the opportunity arises. If you do that and do it well, people will probably want to work with you again.”
Michael Aaron Gallagher: “Hollywood is such a competitive place, what do you think made you stand out and get the roles that you did?”
Mike Farrell: “That’s a hard one to answer. It’s really not my place to talk about what it was about me that led to my being lucky enough to persevere in the business. I think in fairness a lot of it probably simply had to do with luck.”
Michael Aaron Gallagher: “What do you think the secret is to staying famous or popular in Hollywood?”
Mike Farrell: “There’s no secret. Some people rise to the top of the heap because of their looks, their personality, an extraordinary talent or some combination of personal characteristics that make them interesting enough for the audience to care about. I don’t think you can plan it, you just have to be as prepared as you can be so that if the opportunity arises, you’re ready.”
“Fame is much over-rated, in my view, and some people will go to great lengths to gain it because they believe being famous will solve all their personal problems. It won’t. In many cases, it only makes them worse. As Alan Alda once said, ‘No one can understand the cost of losing your privacy until it is gone, and then it’s too late.’”
Michael Aaron Gallagher: “What lessons did you learn about making it in the business?”
Mike Farrell: “What I learned about the business is that it is, first of all, a business. Since that is so, producers need people who are smart and who can behave in a professional manner in order to get their projects done on time and within budget. They need people, upon whom they can rely. All the other razzmatazz that goes along with it, the currying of the favor of the person who happens to be the ‘flavor of the week’ this week and the willingness to tolerate the crazy antics of some of the more neurotic and needy in the business is the price, I suppose, of doing business with some people, but it’s counter-productive in most instances.”
Michael Aaron Gallagher: “Is there a story you can think of that you haven’t told in an interview, about an experience you had working on a show or with a studio that most people might not have heard?”
Mike Farrell: “Anyone who works in the business long enough will have plenty of stories about their experiences, some good and some bad, some funny and some not so funny. I can’t think of any story that I’ve purposely avoided telling except some that don’t reflect well on some of the people I’ve run across. I don’t see the point in telling those.”
Michael Aaron Gallagher: “You mentioned in your book about ‘artificiality’ in Hollywood. Do you think there is a place for people who are honest and sincere or is it just a matter of time before they are either corrupted by the business or used up and spit out?”
Mike Farrell: “There is a tremendous amount of artificiality in Hollywood – or, I should say, in show business in general. There’s a great deal of dishonesty and a lot of social climbing, a lot of manipulation. But all the same, many of the people I’ve met in the business are honest and sincere, and many of them are very successful and a pleasure to know and to work with. ‘Stardom,’ such as it is, can be very hard to deal with, though that’s more the case for some than for others. It can be hard to keep your head about you when people dance attention on you, treat you like you’re some special creature and say or write things that make you out to be cut from a different mold. I admire those I’ve known who have had that ‘star’ experience and have still been able to keep their feet on the ground and realize they’re no different – no better – than anyone else.”
Michael Aaron Gallagher: “Hollywood then (when you were starting out) and now. Are they the same place, and if not, from your perspective, how has it changed over the years?”
Mike Farrell: “I think it’s very different now. When I was coming up one could work his way up from doing plays in local theaters and having people come to see the work. Agents and casting directors used to do that. Good agents used to find people they believed in and work with them, fight for opportunities for them, and nurture careers, starting with little parts and working the way up to larger or better ones. Today, the big agencies, for the most part, raid less powerful agencies and take away promising talent and contest with each other over big names. Smaller agents submit lists of actors to casting directors to try to get their clients interviews for jobs, but there doesn’t seem to be the kind of personal relationship or personal commitment to an individual as used to be the case.”
“Also, there’s such an emphasis on youth today that a lot of kids are thrown into situations wherein they don’t know how to handle themselves, are left without the kind of care-taking and grooming that is necessary, and end up being used up and tossed away.”
“On the business end of it, I think there used to be a kind of partnership between creative people and business people that allowed for great ideas to be expressed on stage or film, some of them big ideas and some small, which made for wonderful opportunities for creative expression and sometimes fabulous products to come to life. Today, it seems to me the business people, money people and those with decision-making power, have come to think that they are the creative people, and the result is a lot of mindless garbage on television and on the big screen.”
Michael Aaron Gallagher: “Does the politics of the big Hollywood studios interfere with telling stories that need to be told and making the movies that need to be made?”
Mike Farrell: “If by ‘politics’ you mean the game-playing, the back-stabbing and the ego-stroking that goes on among the business people, the answer is yes… They’ve come to believe they are the creative people. They aren’t, for the most part.”
Michael Aaron Gallagher: “What are some of the causes that are important to you, are there any charities that you support?”
Mike Farrell: “I support a lot of charities. You used the term ’causes,’ which is a little different from ‘charity,’ and whether or not people know about them, I don’t know. I’m deeply involved in the human rights community, both domestically and internationally, and have been for many years. That includes, working here in this country against the use of the death penalty and for reform of our criminal justice system, but it also includes working on issues pertinent to homelessness and poverty and domestic violence and all the things that I think are elements of our fractured social fabric.”
Michael Aaron Gallagher: “How has being an actor enhanced your work in that?”
Mike Farrell: “The obvious one is having achieved some success in this business it gives me a platform, at least at times, to speak to issues that people might not otherwise know about, but it also provides opportunity – opportunities to see, to visit, to go places and to experience things that some people don’t have the opportunity to do and to be able to talk to people about it – to have a platform on which to speak and to use that platform. So because I work on behalf of an organization that works to alleviate the problems of refugees in the underdeveloped world, I’m able to see things in different parts of the world that other people might not either know about or, in some cases, fully understand. Because I work in the human rights world, I’m able to see things in terms of warfare, strife, torture and you name it, that other people might not know about and/or understand. And then when I come back and get the opportunity to do the press, to do the media, or through personal appearances to talk about these things and it gives people an opportunity to see and hear a different perspective.”
Michael Aaron Gallagher: “Entertainment can be a powerful medium for social change, what do you consider to be the greatest challenge that we’re facing in the U.S. right now?”
Mike Farrell: “That’s a tough one. I think biggest challenge is a matter of perspective, but from my perspective, the biggest today is a sense of anger and fear and confusion on the part of the public that is manipulated by people with different agendas, to further their own ends. That, to me, provides energy, fuel to candidacies or campaigns that really are harmful both to the United States and the world, but also to the welfare of the people in this country.”
Michael Aaron Gallagher: “How do you know what causes are worth fighting for? For young people, how do you choose a side on an issue that seems so murky? There are different issues, like you mentioned the death penalty, that some people might have strong feelings one way or the other. As a young person coming up, how did you particularly choose how to support an issue and whether or not to get involved?”
Mike Farrell: “To go back to your use of the term, ‘murkiness’ is an issue of confusion and/or lack of information. And one of the things I try to do is clarify confusion and provide information. I was involved with an organization that was helping people come out of prisons, jails, mental institutions, or out on the streets to find a way back to being productive citizens and that involved going out to prisons and meeting people and offering them the opportunity to come into this organization and perhaps find a better way than they had taken advantage of in their earlier experience and ended up where they were. So that introduced me to the conditions inside our prisons today, which are pretty horrific, generally. I’ve always thought killing people made no sense, weather it was killing people in cold blood or hot blood.”
Michael Aaron Gallagher: “Has there been a cause that you supported that you later regretted which side of the issue you were on?”
Mike Farrell: “None that I can think of at the moment.”
Michael Aaron Gallagher: “You’ve seen some of the most polarizing events of the past several decades, from conflicts over the Vietnam War to issues of domestic terrorism, human rights violations and the death penalty. What advice do you have for young people coming up in this age of uncertainty, and what can they do to achieve a better world?”
Mike Farrell: “Young people need to be encouraged to understand their own value and to recognize the responsibility – and the opportunity – they have to help move our society away from the lust to achieve power over others and toward an honoring of human potential that encourages fellowship. They need to find the courage to move away from fearing others and toward loving them.”
Michael Aaron Gallagher: “What do you want to accomplish that you haven’t yet achieved in your career or in your personal life? If you could achieve some of the things you’ve set out to do in your lifetime, particularly as an activist, what would that mean to you?”
Mike Farrell: “I want to help build a society that values children and does everything it can to help them fulfill their potential. I want to help achieve peace in the world. I want to help create a world where all people’s human rights are universally recognized and honored. I want to bring an end to the use of the death penalty. I want to change our attitude about criminal justice so that we focus less on being punitive and more on having a corrections system that actually helps people understand the right way to comport themselves in society so that they can become productive citizens. I want to help people understand their own value and encourage finding ways for them to live in harmony with each other and with the environment around them. If I can be a part of moving things in that direction I’ll feel it’s been a life well lived.”
I haven’t spoken to Mike Farrell since the day of our interview, but I will always be grateful for the time he spent teaching me that entertainment journalism could be about so much more than just entertainment. I like to think that somewhere out there he’s doing well and he’s OK with how the story turned out. Then again, this story doesn’t really have an ending. There’s still a lot of work left to be done to make the world a better place. My hope is that his words will reverberate for years to come and will give other people the courage to fight for the things that matter and make a difference wherever and whenever they can.
“Mike Farrell’s Life Well Lived (The Lost Interview)”
Copyright © 2011, 2019 by Michael Aaron Gallagher
Photography courtesy of Akashic Books, FX Networks and BigStock
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